The extreme sports documentary is now enjoying a bit of a comeback. The outdoors industry has never been as big as it is now, and it is still growing. People, fed up with the confines of the office are now searching out activities that will get them away from the humdrum of modern city living. For myself, when "The Collective" made a film about Mountain Biking called "Roam" I felt that the the world was shown that not only could a sport other than surfing be made to cinematic excellence, but that with digital cutting and post the ability to do so was open to more people than ever. Of course I'm not forgetting the truly amazing work by Warren Miller, but now that many digital cameras are approaching the look, versatility and feel of film the field is open to more people than ever before.
Recently I was looking around for videos about kayaking. As readers of this site will be aware I recently made a short primer about kayaking for UK Active Outdoors. I caught the bug and now I am desperate to get myself a boat! While searching I came across a few different trailers for a documentary called "WildWater", a documentary by Anson Fogel from Forge Motion Pictures.
To say that I was blown away by it would be an understatement. Shot mostly on a Red One the production shows with cinematic aplomb the heart and soul of kayaking. One shot in particular in the Yule Creek teaser showed a kayaker in slow motion literally riding a wall of water along a sheer rockface! After seeing that I was hooked and I had to find out some more about it.
Anson very kindly agreed to answer some questions about the project, which has been a labour of love for him and his co-filmmakers for nearly two years. When you're done reading make sure you check out the trailers at the end of the article!
ANSON: As usual, its a long story. The short version involves a childhood around serious photographers, bolex cameras and aspirations in adolescence, and a long hiatus dreaming of filmmaking. I returned in earnest to production 3 years ago doing commercial work as AC/Operator and DP, as well as turnkey work for advertising clients. "WildWater" was and is a "fun" project we've done in our spare time for the past 18 months.
Q. You chose to shoot the majority of the production on a Red One, a pretty hefty bit of kit at the best of times. Could you tell us what influenced your decision to shoot with a Red One given the remote locations that "WildWater" was often shot in?
ANSON: We were and are simply interested in producing the best images possible. For "WildWater" we hoped to show it on large cinema screens, and we cannot afford the alternatives - 35mm film, Sony CineAltas, Arri, etc. We also needed the higher framerates, and again, its more cost effective than shooting high speed 16mm - mainly due to the telecine costs. Coming from a celluloid background, we really don't like the "look" of video, and really wanted to produce a piece about whitewater that aspired to the same visual values as feature productions. For us, RED was the only way to do that on no budget, given that we own one and use it for our work, for all the same reasons. There are other cameras that can produce results of similar quality, but they are all a lot more expensive.
Q. Filming Kayaking and outdoor sports in general is often logistically difficult. Did you economise on the amount of kit you took to shoot? For example what type and range of lenses did you take? I noticed that you have many dolly style shots too.
ANSON: Yes. This type of shooting is something we do a lot, and we spend a lot of time in remote places outside of this film, so its nothing new to us. For more remote shoots, yes, we economize. Most of the film was shot on still glass - in this case Canon L lenses, for weight reasons primarily. We don't shoot studio style for other items, but we do still use drives, EVF, rods, mattebox, etc - we also have an incredibly light clever dolly and jib crane system that can be carried in backpacks with some cost in setup time. And then it comes down to sweat and suffering!
Q. How many crew members did the shoots consist of?
ANSON: Usually two, sometimes three. Sometimes one. Myself and an assistant. I pull my own focus when operating, as pulling focus on still glass for this type of fast action at F2.8 (most shots are at 2.8) took me a long time to master, and I can't afford a dedicated AC for this self produced film. Many times the athletes also helped us haul equipment in remote locations.
Q. How did you find the Red One coped with the conditions that you were shooting in?
ANSON: Perfectly. I've had more problems with RED in a studio than outside - I've had bugs, but never had a failure in the field that kept me form shooting, never. I've broken 2 5Dmk2's and an EX in the same period, but never RED. The only failure I've ever had was an EVF cable. And we shot in brutal conditions - 110 degrees on the Grand Canyon with intense wind and dust. In Ecuador, it rained basically the entire time, and the camera got wet often, in spite of our attempts otherwise. The camera is pretty tough.
Q. Data management is now a big issue with many productions who are shooting on solid state. How did you ensure the safety of your footage in such remote places?
ANSON: Standard good practices like used on feature sets - R3D Data manager process, verify all shots in clipfinder or RCX for corruption before formatting the shot media, 3 copies after each shoot session or day, each copy stored in different places, the usual best practices. Follow the rules and all goes well, as with film.
Q. One of the things that struck me when seeing the footage was the quality of the on board boat shots. You told me they were taken with a Canon 5D Mk2. What were the logistical issues of using such a camera mounted to kayaks, especially given the huge forces that the whitewater can exert on gear? How did you cope with exposure issues?
ANSON: Thanks for the kind words. All good questions, its not easy. First, you have to really know and work well with the athletes. They were selective about the rapids and drops that we used the big boatcam on for safety reasons. The unit is fairly large compared to an HD Hero, but even modern HD POV cams are pretty dismal image quality wise. Exposure, focus, WB, zoom, etc were always set on the bank just before the run by me, the lens gaffer taped to hold zoom and focus, gaffer tape on the dials and knobs for the same reason as the camera takes a beating. A bomber surf housing is critical as well. Then always shoot manual, get real creative with the mount systems - it a major hassle. But for now, the only good way to get POV footage is this or a Photosonics 1VN w/16mm film. There is another system in the 30,000 dollar range but we've not tried it. We might start using T2i's and considering them as disposable given the number of repairs so far on our 5D2.
Q. I know myself that getting killer shots of such sports can be a time consuming business. Could you tell us a bit about how you coordinated with the athletes in order to get the precise shots you were after? Were you able to call upon personal experience with kayaking?
ANSON: Yes personal experience helps with credibility, but is not required. Logistics varied by shoot - for a few, we had athletes running multiple times and really working for us and the camera, Ecuador was like that. But much, most, of the time, we were shooting athletes doing very difficult things for fun, one time only, and we were there to capture it. Then, its all about preparation and familiarity with your kit - we scouted the location in advance to pick camera angles and shoot locations, planned out timing of shots, and then executed when the athletes were there, often without the ability to coordinate the athletes at all. We also tried to shoot in overcast conditions most of the time for various reasons.
Q. Were there any issues matching the 5D footage to that from the Red One? If there was, could you mention how the problems were overcome?
ANSON: Oh yes, and the biggest is actually not image quality - its timecode and codec. Image matching is easier as we only use the 5D for POV shots, so the audience does not expect them to look the same as a careful dolly shot on shore - it looks and feels different and that's fine. Doing final grade in Smoke (or Apple Color) with a skilled colorist, matching is not that hard within reason. But the fact that the 5D starts each clip at 00:00:00:00 with no options when shooting, has useless on board audio, and records H264, make post production a real chore. Each clip has to be transcoded to something usable (ProRes in our case for offline and online edits), timecode embedded in it, and audio synced, is a nightmare. It also wont record 24FPS, only 23.98 - again for us this was a challenge. We avoid them (DSLR Video) at all costs, they take too long in post, outweighing the higher cost of another camera for us.
Q. Crafting great shots is a difficult process even with pre planned fictional cinema. With "WildWater" how did you go about creating the stunning photography? Did you go on many recce trips, or were you at the mercy of having to scout out places based on local knowledge on the fly?
ANSON: Very very kind of you to say, thanks. Most of the shots were created on the spot, planned for between 10 seconds and 30 minutes, executed, and then on to the next. A lifetime of shooting and studying that style of stills photography helps I think. You have to get into this very focused, almost zen mindset where the ONLY thing you see and think about is the shot. You spend that time thinking and seeing like a camera I guess, not like a human. I imagine that's how it works for people that are REALLY good at it, and I am not one of them. Then you drink a lot of beer that night to try to feel normal again!
Q. When using the Red One and 5D in such environments, how did you decide on your exposure? Many times I find myself under exposing slightly for digital, but I have found that the Sony EX cameras prefer a slight over exposure to be brought down slightly in post. How did you find your gear performed in this regard? Feel free to mention any grading issues/methods here, and how you rated the camera under the stressful lighting conditions.
ANSON: This could be a book, this question. The key to making RED look good is to expose carefully. More so than other cameras I think, or maybe its just that the expectations are higher. The rules have changed a bit with successive software builds on the R1, and now on Red MX. Luckily, REd also gives you incredible exposure tools - its not that subjective, and I stopped carrying my trusty meter after a bit. I avoid overexposure like the plague, meter in RAW, and vary the exposure practice with the scene type, knowing through practice what works and does not for this particular camera. Also, we almost never shot in broad sunlight - only morning and evening or overcast light, with some key exceptions. We learned to shoot a grey card in most setups to assure the right white balance information in grading later, that is also critical - if the white balance is not right, nothing else will ever be right. Grading is a whole other book to write, but we have a workflow that's pretty common and allows us to grade direct to the RED raw files at the end of the chain taking advantage of shooting RAW. We use RedCineX, with a RedRcocket, Final Cut or AVid using 1920 ProRes 444 files from RCX transcodes, then we can just grade in Color with the ProRes and output and be done, or if its more critical, we send it to our favorite LA colorist and he reconnects the original RAW files in Smoke or Scratch and the ProRes become offline files used just for editing.
Q. When you shoot do you have an idea of the edit and the music in mind before you go out to location? I know myself that I like to have a feel for how the whole thing will feel and I prefer to edit to music rather than the other way around. Do you have any particular preference for obtaining the whole flow of the piece?
ANSON: Absolutely, we had a strong clear vision, and we almost always shot for the edit. You have to shoot FOR an edit that is well realized - ideally storyboarded and sketched out - our you will waste a lot of time and have a piece that lacks cohesion. At least for me, I need that. If I don't shoot for a previsualized edit, I end up having mostly useless shots - even GREAT useless shots - and missing other shots.
Q. With regard to the editing, what was "WildWater" cut on, and how was it mastered? Ie was it intended for filmout with a 4k process throughout?
ANSON: We cut using the workflow I described above - but I wish I had cut it on AVID instead of FCP, as we have tons of speed changes in the piece, and AVID can send the right information to Scratch and other post software suites, where FCP can only really deal with speed changes well with Color. As for desired final - right now we are doing final output at 1920 Uncompressed 10 Bit for festival HDCAM SR, DVD and BluRay masters. The workflow always anticipated the possibility of a 2K filmout, which we may still do when we get some money. But we did not intend for a 4K filmout, its too expensive currently.
Q. Something that will strike people when they see the trailers for the production is the sound. It has a very big "Hollywood" feel if that is the right term. How did you approach the sound production and mixing? Did you have a firm idea of how you wanted it to sound? How much was performed in post and how much as location recording? Did you combine many location recordings into one final mix (ie placing mics in the base of the boats to obtain the low rumbles of the water hitting the hull etc)?
ANSON: Thanks again. Sound is a big part of my technical background, and I have always felt that sound can be even more important than picture. From the beginning, I had a strong vision for the soundscape, and had the key music picked out and licensed. Most of the sound is designed in post. We used a lot of our wild location sound as guidelines or ingredients, but almost never as recorded. The rapid sounds are all carefully created in ProTools and in a studio by Greg McRae, a fellow kayaker who is also an engineer at Coupe Studios in Boulder, Colorado. But the trailers were all done by me in ProTools in my studio - If you like the sound in the trailers, the final film will be a lot more impressive and polished, we put a TON of effort into it. I spend more time cutting sound and music than picture in the end.
I would like to extend my thanks to Anson for taking the time to answer my questions. For those of you who are itching to see some of the footage from the film check out the trailers below! There is also an official WildWater website.